Studio Architectures: Vistas and Visions

On 22 and 23 September 2020 the STUDIOTEC project held its first workshop Studio Architectures: Vistas and Visions online. Here the team presents a report of the highlights.

Sarah Street introduced the event by welcoming guests Brian Jacobson (California Institute of Technology), Jonathan Mosely (University of the West of England), Dietrich Neumann (Brown University), Angela Piccini (University of Bristol) and Michael Wedel (Konrad Wolf Film, University of Babelsberg) who kindly accepted our invitation to participate and respond to our papers. This early stage of the STUDIOTEC project, which turned one on 1st September (happy first birthday STUDIOTEC!), was the perfect moment to be reaching out to invite perspectives from experts working in related fields. 

The STUDIOTEC project promotes comparative themes, relating to studio environments in Britain, Germany, France and Italy. As Sarah explained: ‘In our project we are concentrating on the years 1930 to 1960. In these decades film studios experienced highs and lows, periods of intense productivity and activity, but they were also at other times prone to contraction and major disruptions. They also developed physically over time. The snapshot that we will be presenting in these sessions I hope will give an idea of how our research is developing as well as exploring productive directions for studio studies’.

The workshop was divided into two sessions. The first concentrated on the studios’ geographies, their locations as important determinants. It aimed to explore methodological challenges and opportunities to analyse and interpret studios’ geospatial histories. It consisted of team presentations on Britain, Germany, France and Italy followed by Fraser Sturt’s talk on GIS technology as a tool for studios’ spatial analysis and interpretation.  

Richard Farmer and Sarah Street’s paper ‘British Studios: Key sites, locations and facilities’ documented how British studios between 1930 and 1960 were almost exclusively concentrated to the North and West of Central London. The Gaumont-British Studios at Shepherd’s Bush were an exceptional example of an inner-city studio which sought to overcome the restrictive size of the site by building up, rather than out, stacking the stages on floors above dressing rooms, offices and workshops. Sarah concluded this first geographical overview by discussing statistics and data which indicate a rapid growth and later decline within the thirty-year period in the number and operational capacity of studios in Britain. In his paper on ‘German Studios: Berlin, Munich and Beyond’, Tim Bergfelder shared extensive details of the diachronic evolution of German film studios, identifying key phases and regional/urban production clusters (the Greater Berlin area and Munich initially, but then also Hamburg, Bendestorf and Göttingen). 

In her presentation, Carla Mereu Keating raised some conceptual issues related to the (geographical) identity of film studios in Italy, arguing against taking an exclusive Rome-centric perspective. Morgan Lefeuvre introduced France’s ‘contrasted’ studio landscape, highlighting the great waves of construction and renovation of French studios and their functioning as a network.

Fraser Sturt gave the last presentation of this first afternoon, ‘Space, Time & Everyday Life’, explored our spatial data. Our archaeology expert reflected on the surprising ephemerality of the historical data generated by film studios and on how few film historians have so far used studios’ geospatial data to investigate qualitative and quantitative aspects related to film production. 

The second afternoon took us beyond the studios’ doors, as it were. Each member of the team gave a paper on particular case studies dealing with architectural aspects and the functional organization of the studios. Offering a range of approaches and analyses, the presentations highlighted how film studios’ material infrastructure and means of production influenced professional practices. They also discussed how social, economic and political factors played a role in the architectural design and working life of the studios. 

Sarah Street’s paper ‘Designing the Ideal Film Studio in Britain’ explored how studio planning was at the heart of post-war reconstruction for the British film industry, making the need for re-thinking the functionality of existing structures and locations particularly acute. Using Helmut Junge’s Plan for Film Studios: A Plea for Reform (1945) as a springboard for analysing existing studio structures in Britain and on-going debates about ‘the ideal studio’, Sarah focused on studios’ architectural designs, external appearance and public images. A cross-section drawing of Gainsborough in 1928 gives glimpses into some of the interiors.

Tim Bergfelder’s paper ‘Babelsberg and its context in 20th Century German Architectural Trends’ followed the line of utopian thought illustrated by Sarah, documenting how Nazi Germany’s dominant control of the film industry translated into the emergence of an ideal studio aesthetic and function. 

Continuing the discussion of transnational, ‘ideal studio’ motivation, Catherine O’Rawe’s paper, ‘Building the Ideal (Fascist) Studio: Cinecittà and the Symbolic Rebirth of the Italian Film Industry’, interrogated the genesis of Italy’s flagship studios as the instantiation of the fascist regime’s commitment to architectural and cinematic modernity. 

Morgan Lefeuvre closed this comparative session by examining the case of the French studios in the 1930s and 1940s. In her presentation, ‘The unfulfilled dream of a French Hollywood or the impossible centralization of the French studios’, she referred to the many unsuccessful attempts to centralise and rationalise French studios (in very different political and economic contexts) before analysing the causes of these repeated failures and consequences for film production. 

The second part of the afternoon was devoted to case studies focussed on the transition to sound and developing comparative and environmental approaches. In her paper, ‘The symphony of work: Architectural space and working practices’, Eleanor Halsall described the early activities and material infrastructure of Ufa’s purpose-built sound studio Tonkreuz, at Babelsberg, the first of its kind in Germany. She explained how architect Otto Kohtz configured the interior space to eliminate the unwanted intrusion of undesired sounds, illustrated with contemporary impressions of the studio Tonkreuz as a working space. 

Carla Mereu Keating shared ongoing research into the spatial history of Cines, Italy’s first silent film production facilities and also the very first to be converted to sound. Inspired by Henri Lefebvre’s triadic conceptualisation of space, Carla reflected on Cines’ ‘archi-textures’ to observe the tensions present within the studio’s material infrastructure and interrelated spatial representations and social practices (city planning, housing expansion, transportation). 

‘What can we learn from researching the activities of the ‘lesser’ studios of film history?’ asked Sue Harris in her evaluation of two of the twenty film studios active in France during the 1930s: the studios Pathé de Joinville, the largest and most prestigious corporate film production facilities in France, and the Studios de Neuilly, one of the smallest independent sites established after the transition to sound. 


Richard Farmer’s original exploration of the impact of localised (anthropogenic) climatic factors in the siting, design and equipping of British film studios, ‘Fog and British studios’, concluded the final session and our first workshop. London’s winter ‘peasouper’ fogs were considered the ‘arch-enemy of good photography,’ and during the first decades of the 20thcentury they regularly disrupted filmmaking in Britain, delaying production schedules and increasing production costs. Richard’s paper explained how British studios evolved in response to problematic meteorological factors.  

Throughout the two sessions thought-provoking questions were asked and observations shared generously. These discussions led us to collectively question the geography and architecture of the studios from several angles. We debated the links between the studios and their territories by asking how these environments influenced the studios in terms of their architectures, functioning, levels of activity or sustainability. The study of studios’ technical and aesthetic characteristics shows how they reflected their eras, reinforcing a material conception of cinema and its place in society. But beyond materiality, studios also functioned as spaces for creation and sociability, leading us to reflect on how these might have influenced the films they produced. Lastly, methodological reflections emerged from these debates, in particular how GIS and other working methods in archaeology can enrich our thinking and help us to understand the histories of the studios in all their diversity and complexity.

Conversations about Studios

To coincide with the recent publication of In the Studio: Visual Creation and its Material Environments, STUDIOTEC’s Sarah Street joined the book’s editor Brian R. Jacobson and two other contributors, J.D. Connor and Rielle Navitski, in a conversation about studios organized and hosted by Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York. It was a great opportunity to debate some key issues arising from researching film studios from comparative perspectives, drawing on examples from Britain, Brazil and the USA. We were asked about the value of studying studios, the methods and approaches required, and about our particular case studies we wrote about in the book. You can listen to the audiocast:

The conversation enabled us to draw out some of the similarities and differences between ‘The Independent Frame’ experiment conducted at Pinewood in the late 1940s, studios in Brazil in the 1920s, and Lucasfilm’s approach to organizing studio spaces in the USA. A key issue that emerged towards the end of the discussion was how studios, in a number of different contexts, needed to provide stability in the face of chaos. Structures that were inflexible could easily become economic liabilities, and adaptability to local conditions and networks was crucial. This theme is also relevant to the many diverse studios in the book. 

In the Studio covers a range of contexts which, as Brian R. Jacobson writes in the Introduction, invite ‘new questions about the conditions that shape the construction of profilmic spaces and their products’. While all of the diverse examples offer insights into studios, perhaps the most relevant to the work of STUDIOTEC are the chapters by Noa Steimatsky and Sarah Street. Steimatsky examines Cinecittà in the 1940s, focusing on how the studio served as a prisoner of war camp and as producer of fascist cinema in which prisoners were used as extras. This darkest phase of the studio’s history is described by Steimatsky: ‘The phantasmic world of the movie studio is transfigured into an altogether different kind of ghostly place, a shadow of the life outside’. 

Sarah Street’s chapter explores the impact of ‘The Independent Frame’ (IF), an experiment conducted at Pinewood Studios for one short and six feature films produced in 1948-51. From short and longer-term perspectives, the IF serves as an instructive case study of the reception of innovation within prevailing studio cultures and practices.

Pinewood Studios, 1950

The IF was devised by David Rawnsley, a British set designer with an engineering background who had worked with David Lean, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The IF was a system of pre-production planning in which effects were utilized to speed up production and reduce costs. This meant deploying back projection, process shots, miniatures and glass shots into a precise scheme of pre-production planning informed by storyboards. It introduced several technological innovations, especially concerning mobile equipment such as easily moveable rostrums and towers, as seen in these illustrations:

Costs were further reduced by substituting ‘doubles’ for the principal actors whenshooting at expensive overseas locations. Heralded as a revolutionary approach, the IF promised to streamline British production methods and halt a series of serious economic crises that had beset the film industry following the end of the Second World War. While most of its key components were already in existence, the IF represented a shift towards more mechanized and cost-effective methods for their deployment. It was applied to a number of feature films in the late 1940s, including Warning to Wantons (Donald Wilson, 1949), Floodtide (Frederick Wilson, 1949), Stop Press Girl (Michael Barry, 1949), Boys in Brown (Montgomery Tully, 1949). Warning to Wantons, the first IF feature film, was a comedy shot in six weeks at a modest budget. Here we see it being filmed using mobile equipment and a camera and lighting set-up:

Back projection (the projection of a film or still image onto the back of a translucent screen in front of which actors are filmed performing) was also used for shots to save location shooting costs, early examples of ‘virtual’ approaches to filmmaking:

Warning to Wantons

The IF constitutes an interesting case of applied research that resists being summarily dismissed as an expensive gamble by J. Arthur Rank, Britain’s dominant film producer who bankrolled its development. Although some technicians opposed an over-emphasis on cost efficiencies and streamlining, seen from a longer-term perspective the IF was an innovative response to the problems facing the British film industry at the end of the 1940s. These issues occasioned an unprecedented level of state protective legislation as well as a series of in-depth, valuable reports into its structure, including studio space. Looking back on the history of Pinewood, the IF was influential in the infrastructural development of the complex as a major studio renowned for technical ingenuity. At a time when film and television producers are having to devise ingenious methods of filming actors to take into account social distancing restrictions, and as the world of ‘virtual’ filmmaking gathers momentum, the IF has lessons in filming under constraints, albeit of a different nature. 


Brian R. Jacobson (ed.), In the Studio: Visual Creation and its Material Environments, (University of California Press, 2020).

Making Italian cinema great again (and again): Founding ceremonies and inaugurations of Italy’s film studios (and their politics)

By Carla Mereu Keating

‘An unforgettable day’: The inauguration of the Cines-Pittaluga studios 

Showcasing state-of-the-art infrastructure and technology, the highly mediated re-opening of the historical Roman studios Cines by entrepreneur Stefano Pittaluga inaugurates not only the beginning of Italy’s sound film production but also a long-lasting entanglement between the film and media industries and the powers that be.

Advert for the newly converted studios (La vita cinematografica 1930: 62)

According to the print media – much of which gravitated around Pittaluga’s vertically integrated company Società Anonima Stefano Pittaluga (SASP) – the ‘solemn’ inauguration of the studios, held on the afternoon of Friday 23 May 1930, made for ‘an unforgettable day’ (La rivista cinematografica 1930: 13; Kinema 1930: 83). 

Only a few years earlier, in October 1926, the run-down film production facilities, the first of this kind to be founded in Italy, in 1905, by pioneer filmmaker Filoteo Alberini and business partner Dante Santoni, who owned a piece of land near Porta San Giovanni in Rome (Lasi 2015: 29), had been incorporated into SASP (Redi 2011: 87-90). The facilities had gradually been refurbished throughout 1929 and two of the three existing stages converted to kickstart ‘sound, singing and talking’ film production in Italy. 

In the picture below, Minister of Corporations Giuseppe Bottai and Stefano Pittaluga (in the centre, left and right) visit the Cines studios accompanied by other guests (La vita cinematografica 1930: 15). 

The re-opening of the studios was also the focus of the Rivista Cines N. 1 (directed by Carlo Campogalliani), the first of a newsreel programme offered by Cines-Pittaluga to accompany the screening of its main feature-length production. This inaugural rivista would be screened in theatres nationwide from October 1930, in conjunction with Italy’s long-awaited first talking film La canzone dell’amore (Redi 1986). The newsreel showcased Pittaluga’s ambitious new project while launching recently contracted actors Elio Steiner, also the male protagonist of La canzone dell’amore, and Grazia del Rio, who would star alongside Steiner in Stella del Cinema, another Cines-Pittaluga’s feature set in the studios and released in June 1931 (Bursi 2012).

Through crosscutting editing and temporal manipulation of the order in which the afternoon unfolded, the rivista moved towards its climax, the speech given by minister of Corporations Giuseppe Bottai in support of Pittaluga’s venture in particular and of the Italian film industry as a whole (see passage below). The camera-shy Pittaluga had spoken first, welcoming the fascist hierarchy in front of a distinguished crowd of guests (allegedly, some 700 people had been invited to the inauguration, but the evidence suggests a lower attendance). 

Stefano Pittaluga reads his speech (Il cinema italiano 1930: 3)

Stefano Pittaluga reads his speech (Il cinema italiano 1930: 3)

Pittaluga’s inaugural speech does not feature in the rivista. Here’s a short illustrative passage of his intervention, as quoted in the press: 

our aim is to release to the world, from the Cines studios, works capable of being expression of the new Italy, that is to say of a Nation that wants to live, to prosper and to affirm in front of everybody her magnificent possibilities which were perfected across many and long centuries of glorious civilization, and which today mean, to us Italians, having an exquisite artistic sensibility, determination and awareness of our race’s worth. (my italics)

Bottai’s confident speech was all for the silver screen. Let us remind ourselves here that this audiovisual document would have been, for many Italian moviegoers in October 1930, an early, if not their very first, experience of hearing and seeing someone speaking (Italian) on screen. Here’s a passage immortalised by the rivista:

‘Commendator Pittaluga, cinematographic activity interests at the same time the artistic order, the economic order and the political order of the nation insofar as it directs the strength of the nation towards manifestations destined to take around the world its reputation. For this reason, I am here, in your studios, to bear witness to the deep interest of the national government for this branch so interesting, so difficult and so important to the industrial and artistic activity of the country. I have readied a labour scheme, a funding scheme, a normative scheme that will help, I hope, to create better conditions for Italian filmmaking, politically, economically, financially. But alongside these norms, these funding schemes, these and all that the State is about to do, individuals are needed, entrepreneurs are needed, film industry leaders are needed to act with firm will and sure energy. We wait, and I say we mainly on behalf of my, of our chief, the Duce of fascism, for Italian film men, young and old, to give Italy, also in this field, new victories!’ (my italics)

The Roman minister’s political rhetoric (here articulated in a number of figures of speech including alliteration, prolexis and parataxis) would have offered a sound-on-picture-perfect illustration of the exciting possibilities of the new talking film technology (the RCA Photophone system, in the case of Cines).

Among the hyperbolic press propaganda which followed this inauguration, one entitled ‘Costruire’ [to build] is particularly interesting to our present work on the studios as it highlights the fast-growing infiltration of politics (in this case of fascism’s imperialist ideology) in the  material fabric of the film studios  ̶  a well-known example of which would be the building and inauguration of Cinecittà by Benito Mussolini in April 1937. Here the journalist draws both from construction terminology and military vocabulary (comparing Pittaluga’s studio venture to Julius Caesar’s legendary crossing of the norther Italian river!) to celebrate the historical creation of a future Italian Hollywood: 

‘To the vacuous propagating of chatters which oozed our misery of construction, finally today we contrast the full efficiency of a fascist verb: to build. […] and not only are actual buildings being built, those contingent and most modern to the making of the sound, talking and singing film; but already the vast and powerful Roman construction yard vibrates of a harmony of activity arranged aptly, distributed intelligently, and led daily by the new artisans of ‘our’ new italic film […] Stefano Pittaluga has crossed the Rubicon and marches to the conquest of a country that seemed inaccessible even in dreams and that may well tomorrow be named the true Italian Hollywood’ (La rivista cinematografica 1930: 1)

The foundation and inauguration, at the outskirts of Rome, of Cinecittà and of the national film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in April 1937 and on January 1940 respectively are possibly the most obvious examples of the direct involvement of the state in film matters. There are, however, other, perhaps lesser known, symbolic episodes of political participation in the physical life of the studios. At least one example can be found in later years, during the post-fascist Christian Democrat administration.

‘A solid, lasting foundation’: De Laurentiis’ Dinocittà

On 15 January 1962 construction work officially began for producer Dino De Laurentiis’ new film studios, an ambitious $30 million project which would see the building of Europe’s most technologically advanced film studio complex on the via Pontina, 23 km outside of Rome (Kezich and Levantesi 2004: 150; 155). De Laurentiis’ costly venture was baptised by the national newspaper press as ‘the birth of a new Cinecittà’ (Corriere d’informazione 1962: 8). 

The founding ceremony was celebrated with ‘festive solemnity’ by a distinguished gaggle of well-known industrial, artistic and political figures. Guests included De Laurentiis’ close friends and collaborators such as popular actor Alberto Sordi and director Federico Fellini (who was later quoted to dub the studios ‘a space station’) (Kezich and Levantesi 2004: 114-15). Vittorio De Sica was invited to read from a parchment, which was then enclosed in a silver container and buried with the first stone by Amintore Fanfani, Christian Democrat Prime Minister of Italy.. 

Laying the first stone (Paese Sera 1962: 11)

As proclaimed by De Sica, the building of the studios symbolised De Laurentiis’ ongoing wish to give a solid, lasting foundation – industrial, social, moral and artistic – to the work he has already undertaken in the cinematographic field. This vast complex, whose construction commences with this very stone, will benefit the entire Italian film industry, which, since the beginning of the Twentieth century and particularly during the last fifteen years, has contributed so much to Italy’s image and prestige throughout the world. (2004: 154) (translation by James Marcus; my italics)

Before De Sica, the under-secretary of the Ministry of Performing Arts Renzo Helfer also shared some words to celebrate the occasion. Here’s a short extract published in Turin’s newspaper La Stampa:

We look with regard at the development of an industry as dynamic as cinema (…) but we surely cannot exempt ourselves from exercising control in order to secure respect for the State and its rules. (1962: 4)

The shutdown of the film studio complex after less than ten years of activity stirred a huge controversy because its construction had been partly funded with loans granted by the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno. This was a governmental scheme aimed to encourage economic growth in the South of Italy and which offered credit and tax incentives to promote public and infrastructural investments. Laid-off workers occupied the facilities and went on strike to protest against job losses. The closure also became subject of a parliamentary inquiry, the socialist party (and the communist press) accusing De Laurentiis of speculating with public money to build an ‘impractical white elephant’, only to try to sell it back to the state through a merger with the ‘obsolete’ Cinecittà (2004: 188-89; 195; Argentieri 1983: 11).  

Rites of Passage  

Leading ahead in the domestic conversion to sound, Pittaluga’s capitalist venture welcomes, in early 1930, the state’s commitment to support the longed-for rebirth of the Italian film industry. During the regime’s later years, the much-propagandised foundation-building-inauguration of Rome’s fascist city of cinema, Cinecittà, epitomizes the permeation of politics in the material life of the studios. In the early 1960s, the founding of De Laurentiis’ studios brings us to another industrial rite of passage , once again symbolised by the building of a film production complex equipped with the latest technology. Riding too late on the wave of the post-war production boom, however, the producer’s lavish new project (and the domestic film industry) will be destined to ill fortune.


Anon, ‘Costruire’, La rivista cinematografica, 11: 11, 15 June 1930, pp. 1-4.

Anon, ‘La solenne inaugurazione della Cines-Pittaluga’, La rivista cinematografica, 11: 11, 15 June 1930, pp. 13-19.

Anon, ‘La solenne inaugurazione dei teatri Cines-Pittaluga’, Il cinema italiano, 19, 1 June 1930, pp. 1-3.

Anon, ‘L’inaugurazione ufficiale degli stabilimenti Cines-Pittaluga a Roma’, Kinema, 2: 2, June 1930, pp. 83-86.

Anon, ‘La prima pietra al Centro De Laurentiis’, Paese Sera, 16-17 January 1962, p. 11.

Argentieri, Mino, ‘Quante mani su Dinocittà’, L’Unità, 16 December 1983, p. 11.

Bursi, Giulio, ‘Vano e’ cercare forme strane e nuove! “La stella del cinema” di Mario Almirante e la rappresentazione della tecnologia nel primo cinema sonoro italiano’, Immagine: note di storia del cinema, 5, 2012, pp. 105-37.

Kezich, Tullio and Alessandra Levantesi (2004), Dino. The Life and Films of Dino De Laurentiis (New York: Hyperion).

Lasi, Giovanni (2015), La presa di Roma. 20 settembre 1870 (Milano-Udine: Mimesis/CSC).

L. Z., ‘È nata la grande rivale di Cinecittà’, La Stampa, 16 January 1962, p. 4.

N. U., ‘Nasce una nuova Cinecitta’ per il film sulla Bibbia’, Corriere d’informazione, 13 January 1962, p. 8.

Redi, Riccardo (1986), Ti Parlero’ … d’amore. Cinema italiano fra muto e sonoro (Torino: ERI).

Redi, Riccardo (2011), La Cines. Storia di una casa di produzione italiana (Bologna: Paolo Emilio Persiani).

All translations from Italian language sources are by the author unless otherwise stated.

Many thanks to senior archivist Franca Farina and the Fondazione CSC – Cineteca Nazionale in Rome for providing remote study access to the Rivista N.1 during the lockdown.

Publicising the studio: Cigarette cards – ‘How Films are Made’

By Richard Farmer

Cigarette cards have a long association with the entertainment industries, and some of the earliest British cards, issued in the 1890s, sported images of popular stage performers (Hilton, 2000: 141).  During the ‘hey-day of [cigarette] card issues’ in the 1920s and 1930s, tobacco manufacturers were continually on the look-out for subjects that reflected changes in popular culture, and in the interwar period ‘series on actresses and beauties gave way to series on film stars, recording the dominance of the cinema as the most popular mass entertainment in place of the music hall’ (London Cigarette Card Company, 1982: 13).

The tobacco companies’ tendency to focus on film stars reflected the way in which much cinema advertising functioned in this period, where actors and actresses were usually very much to the fore.  In 1934, however, the London-based B. Morris and Sons adopted a different approach, issuing a series of cards entitled ‘How Films are Made.’  This series was founded on a belief that British smokers and card collectors would be as interested in learning about the production of films as they were in watching them.  Providing information about some of the people and processes involved in filmmaking, the cards provide glimpses of particular spaces within the studio.  Each card has a colour illustration (not a photograph) on one side – artist unknown – and an explanation of a job, piece of equipment or creative process on the other.

As acknowledged on each of the cards, the ‘How Films are Made’ series was produced with the assistance of the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, which appears to have granted access to its studios, and/or provided stills or other kinds of information useful to the cards’ creators.  Six of the company’s films, shot between May 1932 and November 1933, are mentioned in the series.  Of these, five (Rome Express, 1932, and The Good Companions, I Was a Spy, Channel Crossing and Turkey Time, all 1933) were made at G.-B.’s main studio at Shepherd’s Bush – the only facility mentioned by name on the cards – and one (Friday the Thirteenth, 1933) at the company’s studio at Islington, although exterior sets for I Was a Spy, the subject of one of the cards, were built at Shepherd’s Bush and then transported to British Instructional’s studio lot at Welwyn.

Image 2.jpg
Building the exterior set for I Was a Spy, and how it appeared in the film

The promotion of Shepherd’s Bush is understandable; when the cards were issued, the studio had only recently been rebuilt and expanded at a cost of approximately £750,000, finally reopening in 1932 with ‘imposing’ new buildings, six new sound stages and various workshops ‘all fully equipped with the latest innovations in mechanical aids to human craftsmanship’ (Anon., 1930: 33; Anon., 1931: 48; Pritlove, 1932: 146).  The publicity campaign that attended the opening of the expanded Shepherd’s Bush facility, evident not only in these cards but also in publications such as the Meccano Magazine and in replicas of the studios exhibited in the foyer of G.-B.’s cinemas, show that film studios were not only spaces that produced popular culture, but were an element of that popular culture, too.

Of the films mentioned on the cards, the five made at Shepherd’s Bush were all produced after the first part of the studio’s reconstruction was completed in mid-1932, with Rome Express, starting production on the day of its re-opening (Buchanan 1932: 15).  Although the ‘How Films are Made’ series does not mention the renovations, there is considerable overlap between many of the features covered in, for example, Kine Weekly’s glowing portrait of the new Shepherd’s Bush studio, published on 11 January 1934, and the twenty-five subjects discussed in the cigarette cards (see appendix for full list of card titles).

The ‘How Films are Made’ series afforded an enviable opportunity for Gaumont-British to show-off the cutting-edge nature of its new facility.  Although some of the technologies explored seem a little obscure – card no. 7 informs readers that ‘The studio is fitted all round with air pressure pipes’ which allowed set dressers to use a ‘pressure gun’ to make ‘anything from beautifully traced spider webs to masses of dirty cobwebs’ – the focus on the recording of synchronous sound is rather more predictable. ‘The talkies’ were still a relatively new phenomenon when the cards were released in 1934, and even more so when they were being researched, illustrated and written in 1932-33.  The first all-sound British film, Blackmail, had been released in July 1929, but at the end of 1930 almost 40% of British cinemas remained unequipped to show sound films and there were still six ‘silent’ cinemas in the UK as late as November 1934 (Gomery, 1983: 82; Anon., 1934: 216).  A major reason for the renovation and expansion of G.-B.’s Shepherd’s Bush studio was to make it more suitable for sound-film production, so it is unsurprising that four cards deal directly with sound – Nos. 4: Recording of Train Noises, 6: Microphone “Boom”, 14: The Sound Control Room and 23: Clapper Boy – whilst four others refer to sound or sound recording equipment in passing (Nos. 2: “Dolly” in Action, 15: Rain, 16: Back Projection, No. 25: Snow Scene).

Not all of the cards relate to technological innovations, however, and there are a number that focus on established behind-the-scenes spaces in the studio, presenting these as peopled by adept and specialised workers whose labour is essential to efficient film production.  The cards take the viewer to the wardrobe department, where a ‘skilled needlewoman’ is shown using a sewing machine whilst surrounded by variously styles hats and brightly-coloured dresses, no doubt produced in consultation with a historical consultant ‘versed in the details of the dress of many periods’.  ‘Specially skilled’ make-up artists are shown working in their department before shooting begins and on set between takes, and are said to be capable of transforming the appearance of actors with ‘Plastic noses, foreheads, chins, etc.’  In the model department, an accurate scale model of a station set is built, allowing the director and cinematographer to feed into its final design, and carpenters and set designers to work out the type and quantity of materials needed to make the full-size version on the sound stage.  Four carpenters, members of another ‘very important department’, are shown building a wooden howitzer for use in I Was a Spy: their workshop is clean and spacious, and light is provided by a number of large windows.   In another shop, plasterers are shown building a scaled-down copy of the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster, for use in Friday the Thirteenth.

Image 3
Plasterers at work making a replica of the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster for use in Friday the Thirteenth, and how it appears in the film

The celebration of the filmmakers work is, however, pretty understated.  Hyperbole is rare, and glamour is largely absent: no stars are named, and actors are shown as the beneficiaries of their off-screen colleagues’ work, not the reason for it.  The cards’ explanations are worded, and the illustrations drawn, in a simple, matter-of-fact manner, subtly directing attention to the studio’s modernity by showing employees confidently utilising its marvellous technologies as they go about their work.  Similarly, words such as “shot,” “prop,” “set” or “supers” (i.e. extras) are placed in inverted commas but often remain undefined.  Here, the self-consciously casual use of specialist slang – even as mediated by the cards’ (unnamed) author(s) – evokes the highly technical nature of this workplace, whilst their casual deployment suggests the easy mastery that the labour force had over it.

This workforce, though, is shown to be almost exclusively male.  Other than actresses, only two women appear on the ‘How Films are Made’ cards.  One is shown at work in the wardrobe department.  The other is a continuity supervisor, described as a girl on the illustration, and as a lady, albeit with a ‘very important job’, in the description.  This, of course, reflects the highly gendered nature of the film industry in this period – membership records for the ACT union (accessible via the BECTU Membership Database, login required) do not appear to show any male continuity supervisors joining the union before the end of the Second World War – in which jobs were considered more or less (read un-) suitable for women based on their supposed ‘natural’ aptitude for certain kinds of labour, and the unwillingness of male colleagues to work under them.

Image 4.jpg

Taken as a whole, the ‘How Films are Made’ series speaks to the prominence of cinema within British popular culture.  It is difficult to know how widely circulated this particular set of cards were, let alone how those who consulted or collected them responded to the images and information that they contained, although the fact that the theme does not appear to have been revisited might suggest its relative lack of popularity relative to other film related series.  Nevertheless, it has been estimated that by 1939 a single series of cigarette cards might comprise somewhere in the region of 300 million individual cards (Anon., 1948: 5), so even allowing for the fact that there were twenty-five ‘How Films are Made’ cards, as compared to 50 in Player’s 1934 film stars series, there might still have been hundreds of thousands, and possibly several million, of each card printed.  Even today, it is not difficult to purchase complete sets from specialist dealers or online auction sites.  The astounding number of cards in circulation represented a potentially significant promotional boon for Gaumont-British.  But the cards also acted as a means by which information about the British film industry more generally was disseminated, making visible the often unseen spaces of cinematic production, the modernity of the techniques and equipment used therein, and the talents of studio employees.

It seems fitting that cartophilists were encouraged to collect twenty-five cards to complete the set.  Just as the cards show the film studio as a place of collective endeavour, and a finished film as an inherently collaborative product, so the series can only be considered complete when the different trades and spaces of the studio are brought together, too.  There is, of course, an irony in all this: smoking was strictly prohibited in many studio spaces due to the highly flammable nature of film stock and other materials used in film production, meaning that the cigarettes produced by B. Morris and Sons could not be consumed at work by those whose labour was featured in the ‘How Films are Made’ series.

Appendix – Card titles

1) Battery of Cameras; 2) Dolly in Action; 3) Battery of Lights; 4) Recording Noises; 5) Plasterers’ Department; 6) Microphone Boom; 7) Making Cobwebs; 8) Perspective Scenery; 9) Engine and Station Built on Set; 10) Continuity Girl; 11) In the Station; 12) Making a Snowstorm; 13) Wardrobe Department; 14) The Sound Control Room; 15) Rain; 16) Back Projection; 17) White Lines Shewing Camera Range; 18) Model Department; 19) In the Carpenters’ Shop; 20) Making Fog; 21) Make-up Man; 22) Make-up Man on Set; 23) Clapper Boy; 24) Erecting a Set for I Was a Spy; 25) Snow Scene on Set.


Anon. (1930), ‘New Gaumont stages’, Kine Weekly, 30 October: p. 33.

Anon. (1931), ‘New Gaumont studio’, Kinematograph Weekly, 13 August: p. 48.

Anon. (1934): ‘Equipment and technique in 1934’, Kinematograph Year Book 1935 (London: Kinematograph Publications): pp. 214-263.

Anon. (1948), ‘The Cartophilist’, The Times, 3 March: p. 5.

Donald Buchanan (1932), ‘Behind the Screens,’ The Stage, 2 June: p. 15.

Douglas Gomery (1983), ‘Economic Struggle and Hollywood Imperialism: Europe Converts to Sound,’ Yale French Studies, 60: pp. 80-93.

Matthew Hilton (2000), Smoking in British Popular Culture, 1800-2000: Perfect Pleasures (Manchester: University of Manchester Press).

London Cigarette Card Company (1982), Catalogue of International Cigarette Cards (Exeter: Webb & Bower).

B. Pritlove (1932), ‘New sound-film studios at Shepherd’s Bush’, Architects’ Journal, 27 January: pp. 146-8.

Eating in the Studios: Dining with the Stars?

As we research the many maps, plans, images and contemporary accounts of the studios it becomes clear that as well as being factories of film production they were complex social communities employing a large, varied workforce. As well as practical workspaces including stages, workshops, stores and dressing rooms, many studios housed canteens, bars and restaurants. In this blog post we describe examples of such facilities in France, Italy, Germany and Britain, giving a rare glimpse into the studios’ social spaces, the people who were and were not permitted to eat in them and some of the culinary delights on the menu.

Whether it satisfied a practical need by providing a complete meal every day to all the studio crews or whether it just allowed them to have a drink and a sandwich, the ‘bar-restaurant’ was always a central place in the French studios that had one. As a dining area, waiting or reception room, it was the ideal place to feel the pulse of the studio. There you could meet the stagehands as well as the stars, the producers as well as the dressers, and the journalists enjoyed talking to the waiters who generally knew the latest studio gossip.

Just like the editing rooms, the carpenter’s workshop or the power station, the restaurant was an integral part of the ‘studio services’. While most of the major French studios had their own bar-restaurant (like in Joinville, Francœur, Billancourt, Saint-Maurice, Buttes Chaumont, Nice, Marseille or Saint-Laurent-du-Var), some quite important ones, such as the Eclair and Tobis studios in Epinay-sur-Seine, the Studios Photosonor in Courbevoie, or the ‘Studios de Neuilly’, strangely did not. The generic term ‘restaurant’ tended to reflect very different realities from one studio to another. Whereas the Saint-Maurice and Joinville Studios could serve a hot meal to nearly 200 people, many studio restaurants looked more like small bars and were far from able to feed all the film crews. In Billancourt, for example, the ‘Bar du personnel’ did not exceed 40m2 with a small adjoining kitchen of 15m2, which meant the technicians, actors and extras had to regularly visit the neighbourhood’s restaurants, especially Le Père Alix, also frequented by the workers of the Renault car factories located just opposite the studios.

France_Fig 1In the Pathé studios in Joinville, the restaurant (a 350m2 space, equipped with a vast kitchen and a cellar) consisted of a 96-seat canteen for workers and extras, a 40-seat room for supporting actors, employees and technicians (secretaries, props, designers, draftsmen, etc.) and a 36-seat room for stars, directors and their close collaborators (cinematographers, set-designers, production managers). The 12-seat dining room was only accessible by invitation from the management and reserved for a few selected stars, directors or authors.

France_Fig 2Although these restaurants were open to all studio workers and therefore constituted a privileged meeting place, social barriers were not totally abolished, each professional category having its own space. In December 1937, Pour Vous published a photo of extras sitting at a table in a large room and a photo of Albert Préjean – also eating – captioned: ‘while in the next room, a glory of the screen, who may be Albert Préjean, is enjoying the same menu…’ So, even if an extra shared the same menu as the French star Albert Préjean in the same studio restaurant, it was very unlikely that they shared a table!

France_Fig 3Beyond their functional character, the restaurants and bars in the studios sometimes became meeting places or reception areas. Welcoming all categories of staff in a small area, they reflected the atmosphere of the studio, and journalists liked to go there and feel the pulse of the production. Depending on the number of people, the way the groups of workers mixed or not, the way they lingered at the end of the meal or, on the contrary, the way they quickly returned to the workshops and sets, the attentive observer would be able to deduce that the studio was either running at full speed or in slow motion, working in a convivial atmosphere or in strict observance of hierarchies.

As many journalists noted, lunch in a studio restaurant seemed the best way to start a report on the level of activity in French cinema. As Odile Cambier noted in Cinémonde in September 1932: ‘Last Tuesday, wanting to spend an hour in the arc lamp atmosphere, […] I decided to have lunch at the Billancourt Studios’. The restaurant also served as a social area where the stars and directors would address the press. For an interview with the actor René Lefèvre in the summer of 1932, Cinémonde journalist Odile-D. Cambier was received ‘in the small country restaurant of the Pathé-Natan studio in Joinville’, while Maurice Tourneur received Suzanne Chantal, editor of the same newspaper, ‘in the rustic dining room of Pathé-Natan’ to talk to her about her latest film, Au nom de la loi. As for the bar – open all day long and sometimes even quite late in the evening in case of late shooting – it was open to everyone and more conducive to informal meetings that encouraged the strengthening of professional ties between experienced technicians, making connections and even planning future productions.

France_Fig 4

While the bar-restaurant was a place for socialising on a daily basis, it also served as a setting for more exceptional and formal receptions. In Joinville, Pathé’s management regularly organized cocktails, receptions and lunches with the stars of the house, and invited the press for special occasions, such as the Legion of Honor party for its director René Nadal in November 1937, or the ‘gold medal for sports education’ awarded to the head of the Pathé Compagny Bernard Natan in December 1932. More broadly, the studio restaurants regularly welcomed political personalities and foreign delegations who came to visit the jewels of the French film industry. In 1931, in the space of a few months, the restaurants of the Joinville and Saint-Maurice studios welcomed: a delegation of French senators, the Undersecretary of State for Fine Arts, the Ambassador of Argentina, the Consul General of China and his family and the Consul General of Egypt.

Symbolizing the centrality of the restaurant in the studio’s image, the first prize awarded to the winner of the 1932 Cinémonde contest was a lunch ( see below) at the Pathé-Natan Studio’s restaurant, in the presence of some of the studio’s stars.

France_Fig 5
Albert Préjean (first from right), Esther Asséo, at the Joinville Studios’ bar. with production manager Afif Gargour, director Pierre Colombier and actress Alice Cocéa, 1932

In Italy, a study of the design and spatial organization of the studios’ dining areas also helps us get a sense of the labour and social dynamics that governed life in the studios. In its heyday, Italy’s most famous complex Cinecittà (inaugurated in 1937) attracted a large number of high-profile film personalities as well as politicians and diplomats, visiting Rome for business or leisure. The studios’ modern restaurant and bar were aptly designed to cater to these illustrious guests. Described by Cinecittà’s architect Gino Peressutti as a ‘spacious, airy [environment] characterised by effortless and practical sophistication’, this sociable space was located on top of a green terraced area and tucked away from the main action for ‘a cool and pleasantly restful’ experience (Cinema 1937: 306).

Italy Figure 1 - restaurant blog - Cinecitta bar
Cinecittà’s modern deco bar, sketch by architect Peressutti (Martin 2013: 156)

Cinecittà’s general workers and extras ate elsewhere, in a canteen located not far from the stages. This communal space was also ‘furnished with all the comforts necessary to eat and rest’ while at the same time ‘designed to meet essential disciplinary criteria’ (Cinema 1937: 305).

This functional separation was found elsewhere, at Cines for example. The first in Italy to be equipped with sound, thehistorical Roman studios received during the early 1930s a generous amount of press publicity. The lively atmosphere of its (main) restaurant was also paid tribute to. An illustrative example is given below. Standing centre of picture is Cines’ restaurant manager Tullio Pascucci, dubbed by the film magazine columnist as the ‘legendary lunch designer’ (Cinema Illustrazione 1936: 4). The impromptu shot also captured a glimpse of some of his celebrity guests: sitting at the table among others renowned director Carmine Gallone and emerging actor Amedeo Nazzari, bread and fork to mouth respectively.

Italy Figure 2 - restaurant blog - Cines 1936
Diners at Cines

Cines’ main restaurant was located nearby the gardens, in a two-floor building readily accessible from the studio’s principal entrance of via Vejo. The ground floor of the ristorante included an area reserved for the direzione (the owner, the management). Judging from its more descriptive name, the cantina ristorante, on the first floor, would have likely accommodated the studios’ full-time regular staff (perhaps the sound technicians, the camera operators, the projectionists) as well as providing further seating capacity at busy production times. Another smaller restaurant, situated at the opposite side of the studio complex, catered for the operai [labourers] and extras. This dining area was located on the first floor of the scenography and property building, in the vicinity of stage 3, the carpentry workshop and other warehouses and not far from the ‘back’ entrance of Piazza Tuscolo.

A glimpse at the menu is found in the film La stella del cinema (Mario Almirante, 1931), set in Cines, in which we see that actors’ dressing rooms contain a board with that day’s offerings.

Italy Figure 3 - stella del cinema 48 camerini avviso ristorante


In Germany the studio canteen at Babelsberg was an important place to eat and meet. The positioning of the Ufa-Kantine to the left of the main entrance at Neubabelsberg signifies its importance in the layout of the compound. As a location bringing people together and punctuating the working schedule, the canteen goes beyond its functional purpose as a place to eat, acting as a space to recuperate, to discuss work … and to gossip! It is also cited as somewhere aspirant filmmakers and actors might enjoy the company of film stars or have a drink with Pabst, Murnau or Korda (Sunday Mail, 1953: 25).

Gmy Image 1 - Studio kitchen
In the kitchen

During the 1920s, the Ufa canteen at Babelsberg was leased to Kempinski. A document dated 1943 indicates the lease changed to Aschinger, the rival that had taken over Kempinski in a move reflecting the Aryanisation of the industry. Aschinger had established itself early in Berlin’s cultural life, portrayed in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and much later in the crime novels of Volker Kutscher which in turn gave impetus to today’s Babelsberg with the highly successful Babylon Berlin.

Gmy Image 2 Aschinger

There is only occasional mention of the food, but genuine Wiener Schnitzel are served, alongside Möhlspeis, a sweet pastry. If the menus matched those in the centre of Berlin, the fare was predominantly Central/Northern European.

The contemporaneous accounts are drawn from diverse sources, many from abroad. This is a time when Ufa was still making films in other languages, and the diners reflect this diversity: ‘We are surrounded by a medley of languages. Because Ufa is currently producing Spanish, French and German films, we are sitting amid a strange chaos of sounds. At the next table, the French are ordering lunch; the Spanish are noisily settling their bill.’ (Mein Film, 636, 1938: 5) Although these accounts provide only fragmentary information, they allow an outline of the Babelsberg canteen to emerge.

The editors of an Austrian film publication offered the winner ‘[lunch] in the studio canteen, the same one in which Ufa’s prominent film artists tend to take their lunch’, Mein Film (628, 1938: 2). A few months later, Fräulein Niel, was able to enjoy “lunch time in the studios, [… ] sitting at a comfortable table in one of the cheerful and brightly coloured dining rooms’ (Mein Film, 636, 1938: 5). The image on the left shows Johannes Heesters, Fräulein Ingenieur Niel and Otto Richter (Mein Film, 636:5), and the image on the right shows Gary Cooper and Zarah Leander (Mein Film, 1938).

Gmy Image 3 In the canteen

Gmy Image 4 Gary Cooper in discussion with Zarah Leander in the Ufa Kantine






The canteen was also where visiting film stars and magnates took their lunch and Fräulein Niel missed Gary Cooper by a few months. Although there is little to suggest social separation between canteens and restaurants – the studio appears to have had only one canteen – there are nevertheless pointers that internal divisions existed. While in costume the actor, Paul Hartmann, describes being redirected by a waiter: ‘the table for the extras is over there …this one is for the soloists’. (Mein Film, 1935: 4)

Some British studios included multiple spaces for people to eat, differentiated in large part according to the occupations of those using them. At Denham, there were no fewer than three separate dining rooms: an executive restaurant (where lunch might set you back 3s. 6d, and where you might expect to run into all manner of stars and industry big-wigs). Here is Alexander Korda entertaining Mary Pickford and Charles Laughton in Denham’s VIP restaurant.

Fig 3 Britain - Korda, Pickford Laughton at Denham studio VIP restaurant

There was also a more moderately priced restaurant (1s. 9d.), and a cafeteria (10d.) (Stargazer 1938: 12). Although at Ealing a corner of the dining room was partitioned off for use by company directors, site plans for Sound City (Shepperton), Pinewood and Denham (see images below) show that canteens for workmen were housed in a separate building to the restaurants and cafeteria used by executives, administrative staff and actors.

Fig 1 Britain - Dining spaces at Pinewood
Location of dining facilities at Pinewood, 1937

Fig 2 Britain - Dining spaces at Denham
The location of the dining facilities at Denham, 1938

At Denham, this reflected the layout of the studios, where the noisier and dirtier trades (carpenters, plasterers, etc.) were housed as far from the stages as the site and workplace efficiency would allow, but it also functioned to distance these trades from other studio employees: the workmen’s canteen (possibly the cafeteria mentioned above, possibly an entirely different building) was, when the studio opened in 1936, at the extreme south-east of the site, whereas the restaurants used by executives, office staff and actors were at its most north-westerly point. This kind of spatial segregation, of course, speaks to wider issues of class distinction in British society, and it is interesting to note that the supposed egalitarianism of the dining facilities provided by some French and American studios was noted approvingly in British fan magazine Film Weekly (Whetter 1931: 24; Foster 1932: 12).

The provision of on-site catering facilities had the potential to benefit both staff welfare and studio efficiency. Employees having to leave the lot for food might result in longer lunch breaks and tardier returns, but also forced staff to move through environments outside their studio’s control. There was no canteen at the British & Dominion lot at Elstree, and local residents were said to have become ‘quite used to the spectacle of painted men and women, in every kind of costume, trudging through the mud’ to get something to eat at either the adjoining BIP lot ‘or at Blattner’s [studio], across the field’ (Kirk 1931: 10-11). Soiled costumes could not be put before the camera, and cleaning them could therefore delay shooting, whereas when it rained, make-up might need to be reapplied and hair re-dressed.  If, as Napoleon is popularly supposed to have said, an army marches on its stomach, then those working in a film studio needed to be similarly well-provisioned if they were to meet their creative objectives in an efficient manner.

So far, the information turned up by our research into the types of food available in British studio canteens is quite fragmentary, but the following details provide a taste (ho ho) of what was on offer:

  • Denham: fish cakes for lunch-boxes; curries for the 500 extras appearing in the Technicolor version of The Four Feathers’ (Stargazer 1938: 12).
  • Ealing: pheasant; sausages (Newnham 1949: 13).
  • Pinewood: roast beef, steak and kidney pudding, apple pie; Peter Orton, the catering manager at Pinewood, was also responsible for ‘putting food on film’, from custard pies (it ‘must make a magnificent squelch’) to fake ‘raw fish’ made from hundreds-and-thousands-coated jelly (M.J. 1956: 3).

Bon Appétit from STUDIOTEC!


Bundesarchiv R109-I/75 / Aschinger AG, Berlin, wegen der Ufa-Kantine in Babelsberg, 1943 / 1920 – 1947.

Bundesarchiv R109-I/75a /Kempinski & Co., Kantine Babelsberg, Pachtvertrag.

Foster, Iris, ‘Twelve hours in wonderland’, Film Weekly, 2 December 1932, p. 12.

Kirk, Muriel, ‘The City of Illusion’, Film Weekly, 14 February 1931, pp. 10-11.

Martin, Sara, Gino Peressutti. L’architetto di Cinecittà (Forum: Udine, 2013).

Mein Film, Paul Hartmann verläßt uns, 472: January 1935.

Mein Film, Gratisflug nach Babelsberg, 628: 1938.

Mein Film, Gary Cooper in Babelsberg, 676: 1938.

Mein Film, Eine Wienerin fliegt nach Babelsberg, 636: 1938

M. J., ‘What the stars eat at their own canteen’, Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette, 14 December 1956, p. 3.

Newnham, John K., ‘Lunch with the mad hatters’, Picturegoer, 26 March 1949, p. 13.

Peressutti, Gino, ‘Cinecittà’, Cinema, 2:20, 1937, pp. 302-306.

Sabatello, Dario, ‘Tullio, l’uomo che mette in scena il pranzo degli attori’, Cinema Illustrazione, 11:41, 1936, p. 4.

Stargazer, ‘Stargazer’s advance studio news’, Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette, 26 August 1938, p. 12.

Sunday Mail (Brisbane), ‘A Girl of Good Family’, 13 December 1953

Whetter, Laura, ‘In a Parisian film studio’, Film Weekly, 24 October 1931, p. 24

All translations from original language sources are by the authors unless otherwise stated.





By Sarah Street

When Denham Studios opened in May 1936 it was hailed as Britain’s largest, most up-to-date film studio, located on a 193-acre site on an estate called ‘The Fishery’ north of Denham Village in Buckinghamshire. Equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, it was celebrated as symptomatic of the revival of the British film industry, and of the rise of Alexander Korda’s London Film Productions, the company that built the studios with finance provided by the Prudential Assurance Company. Denham was visited by French production designer Lucien Aguettand in December 1936, and also by architect Gino Peressutti when Cinecittà, Italy’s flagship studio, was being designed. While Denham was one of many studios in Britain, soon to be rivalled by J. Arthur Rank’s Pinewood Studios which opened just a few months after Denham in September 1936, its significance in the history of studio architecture, design, labour and professional expertise is incontrovertible. 

For STUDIOTEC, Denham represents many of the key areas we are researching, in particular the themes relating to architecture, set design, émigré labour in the film studios, and the complex infrastructures and networks involving construction, materials, equipment and labour which contributed towards sustaining local, national and international economies. Denham was co-designed by Walter Gropius, the famous Bauhaus architect who joined the British architecture firm Adams, Thompson and Fry in 1934 when he emigrated to Britain, and the architects’ firm Messrs Joseph. Korda was celebrated for his employment of émigré artists, including set designer Lazare Meerson and ‘ace’ cinematographers such as Georges Perinal. This made Denham very much a European-orientated studio despite the fact that when it opened the technical expertise of Jack Okey, an American art director who had contributed to the design of some of Hollywood’s early film studios, was referenced as providing key input. American studios were considered to be advanced, and later analyses of British studios often compared them unfavourably in terms of layout and efficiency with Hollywood. STUDIOTEC will however bring into the comparative framework a much broader set of examples as France, Germany and Italy generated many other models, organisational structures and protocols. 

A key aspect of STUDIOTEC is its focus on studios that are no longer operational. The project will re-open their doors, as it were, in researching how they were designed and operated and, crucially, how they changed over time. For this, we will be using a great number of visual sources, unearthing many photos, including aerial shots that show how studios were organised in different decades, and films that feature footage of the studios. For Denham in the 1930s, the years when it was heralded as a premier studio, the records are relatively plentiful. The input of Gropius, for example, and the studio’s Art Deco design, has generated some rich visual resources. London Film Productions’ reputation in the 1930s as Britain’s major film company, and its stake in promoting Denham as state-of-the art, resulted in A Day at Denham, a documentary produced by London Films in 1939 that can be viewed on BFI Player:

I find this film fascinating for the views it provides of Denham’s construction and internal workings, showing the studio’s access to vast, exterior spaces for filming and set construction. Yet the celebratory rhetoric of the film’s commentary does not reflect that by the end of the 1930s London Films, and the financially unstable film industry, were fast sliding into contraction, forcing Korda to pass control of Denham to Rank in 1939 (Street 1986). Looking at A Day at Denham closely however shows its tremendous value for STUDIOTEC, for the unique access it provides to spaces and activities that have since been transformed for other purposes. In the case of Denham, the complex has recently been converted into a luxury apartment development that takes pride in its former history as a film studio in replicating its Art Deco style and even includes a cinema as one of its facilities:

These stills from A Day at Denham form a wonderful guide to many of STUDIOTEC’s concerns, as well as our search for visual documentation on studios in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, 1930-60. The location of studios is a very interesting issue, including their proximity to cities. Denham’s location, 14 miles from London, and with the plot’s large acreage, permitted the erection of outdoor sets. The contrast between rural idyll and ultra-modern studio begins the film, with shots of Denham Village as a sleepy, pastoral hideaway followed by crowds of employees and extras queueing to get into the studio, and employees clocking on once inside. One contemporary report captured something of the incongruous sight that greeted those who travelled from London by train: ‘Fifteen miles out of London a thick plantation of pine trees hides the view to the right of the line. Suddenly, through the pines glows a fierce purple light, like a giant oxy-acetylene welder. A moment later the trees have swept past to reveal a great mass of buildings, still white in the gathering darkness. Every window blazes with light, and little figures can be seen hurrying from room to room. In the dazzling purple glare there stand the skeletons of scaffolding and strange facades, while high up on a rostrum a tiny figure standing by a tripod waves its arm. A second afterwards the buildings of a small country station blot out the whole scene, and as the platform roars past you glimpse the name of the station – Denham’ (World Film News 1937: 18).

The processes involved in a film studio’s activity are also well-documented in the film, giving the viewer access to the material environment of film production, from making-up actors to constructing sets and building models. Michael Powell described his experience of working at Denham with wonderment at the facilities it offered: ‘The stages of Denham stood in a formidable row along the new road, which would one day be one of the main link roads around London. At present it swept grandly up to Denham Studios and petered out on the other side of the hill, where the huge beech trees of Buckinghamshire marched down to the river and the elephants had danced for Sabu, the Elephant Boy. There were two huge stages, about 200 ft. sq., so large that I couldn’t imagine how to control them, little anticipating that in five years’ time I would be creating Heaven and Earth within those giant concrete walls. I had caught a glimpse of the machine shop and the carpenters’ shops and the electrical stores. This was how a film studio should be! A box of tricks out of which to create marvels’ (1986: 267).

The documentary also shows sets being erected outside the studios as well as interior shooting in one of Denham’s seven stages for well-known films produced by London Film Productions, including Fire Over England (William K. Howard, 1937), Knight Without Armour (Jacques Feyder, 1937), South Riding (Victor Saville, 1938) and The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda, 1939). 

Parts of the studio that were particularly novel were its unique power-house and purpose-built laboratories for processing black and white and Technicolor films. Four of Denham’s stages were air-conditioned, using Western Electric sound systems, the studios had their own water supply and the largest electric power plant used at that time by a private company. A Day at Denham also showed the cutting rooms, providing another window on the world of filmmaking practice. In the 1930s the studio employed 2000 people in the 14 cutting rooms, machine shop, foundry, plumbing and blacksmiths’ shops, wood-working mill, shops for carpenters, plasterers, painters and electricians, stores for small props, stage equipment, make-up and property.

The film also offers glimpses of films being shot on one of the stages, inviting the audience to experience something of the complex logistics of the film studio environment.

A Day at Denham is a wonderful record of the studio in operation, a rare example of filmic evidence that has survived. Other records include an event in Denham’s early history not recorded in A Day at Denham. When the studio was being built there was a fire, as reported in a Gaumont-British newsreel dated 19th March 1936.

These images record the not-so-celebratory aspect of film studios, their status as high-risk working environments. The studio had its own fire-brigade, probably in response to the fire, and because in the 1930s most studios used equipment that was potentially highly combustible. STUDIOTEC aims to cover such key events in the studios’ histories, particularly the health and safety hazards that many workers had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. While A Day at Denham gives us a rich sense of what it was like working in a studio in the 1930s, we hope that the many other examples of studios in Britain, France, Germany and Italy will produce a greater comparative sense of how studios operated in Europe, and better understanding of their unique and transferable structures, practices and personnel. We are also interested in how over time studios have had different functions, Denham being a prime example of a film studio that was later used as a xerox company’s premises, and is now luxury apartments. While A Day at Denham contrasted the ‘placid calmness’ of Denham Village with the ‘gigantic enterprise’ of nearby Denham Studios, the apartments are marketed as a haven of ‘exquisite living’, ‘not just a home, a lifestyle’ to ‘calm the nerves’, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. No longer a hub of filmmaking activity, like many other studios Denham has been re-purposed, re-modelled as a development that nevertheless celebrates the rich history so vividly captured by A Day at Denham’s invitation to let viewers inside.


The Film Council, ‘Secrets of British Film Finance’, World Film News, Jan 1937, pp. 18-23.

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (London: Heinemann, 1986).

Sarah Street, ‘Denham Studios: The Golden Jubilee of Korda’s Folly’, Sight and Sound, 55:2, 1986, pp. 116-122.

Sarah Street, ‘Alexander Korda, Prudential Assurance and British film finance in the 1930s’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 6:2, 1986, pp. 161-179.